Alberta’s Auditor-General intends to investigate how the province handled the opioid crisis, which killed a record number of people last year, as part of its review of the government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic.
Auditor-General Doug Wylie will also examine how Alberta dealt with federal funding programs designed to alleviate hardship created by the pandemic, according to the 2021-22 plan his office posted late last week. Three other areas related to COVID-19 are under review: Alberta’s capital stimulus strategy, its emergency isolation benefit program and the province’s role in the devastating outbreaks at long-term care and designated supportive-living facilities.
Like governments around the world, Alberta poured millions of dollars into its pandemic response and recovery plans, often hastily making big decisions in the name of urgency. At the same time, scores of programs fell off the radar as officials directed their attention to fighting the virus and its effects on the economy. Now that the pandemic’s pace has settled, governments are launching internal reviews, and arm’s-length organizations such as provincial auditors-general are digging in.
“Any examination will focus on public accountability for what was spent, effectiveness of program outcomes, value for investments made, and on lessons learned by government for responding to similar crises in future,” Mr. Wylie’s office said in its audit plan.
The COVID-19 review will be divided into two stages: The first will cover financial accountability, looking at where the government spent money, what value it received, and how it tracked cash. The second stage will focus on programs and processes, including measurements of effectiveness. The reviews of federal programs, provincial stimulus, and the isolation benefit fall into the first category, while the opioid examination and the investigation into care facilities fall into second, spokeswoman Val Mellesmoen said.
Some of the reports will be released this year, she said.
Premier Jason Kenney has taken heat for the way his government has managed the pandemic. Alberta, for example, has been slow to request and distribute money Ottawa offered for COVID-19 relief. Mr. Kenney announced plans to distribute that money on Wednesday.
The National Institute on Ageing calculates that 75 per cent of long-term care facilities in the province have had COVID-19 outbreaks, making Alberta the worst-performing province in this category. And 904 people died after overdosing on opioids between January and October last year, according to the most recent data available on the province’s surveillance system. These deaths came after Alberta trimmed capacity at supervised consumption sites to adhere to physical-distancing rules, and replaced the province’s busiest consumption site with a van. Alberta is also facing a legal challenge over plans to end one of its treatment plans for severe opioid addiction this spring.
The government has pledged co-operation. “The Auditor-General conducts routine audits, including on topical issues,” Jerrica Goodwin, a spokeswoman for Mr. Kenney, said in a statement. “As always, departments will work with the [Auditor-General] as he pursues this process.”
Shannon Phillips, the NDP’s finance critic, welcomed the review, particularly the part on long-term care. Some of the troubles in long-term care facilities, she said, happened because Alberta dragged its feet on taking up Ottawa’s offer of wage support that could have helped secure staff and prevent employees from having to work at more than one site.
The Official Opposition is also keen for more transparency about Mr. Kenney’s stimulus strategy, including details on the $1-billion in equity investment and $400-million in loan guarantees for the Keystone XL pipeline.
“It has been represented to the public as part of the COVID-19 economic stimulus package. We don’t have any visibility on how that money has been spent, how much of it has been spent over and above the equity stake,” Ms. Phillips said. “Albertans deserve to know that.”
U.S. President Joe Biden cancelled permits for Keystone XL when he moved into the Oval Office. Mr. Kenney said Alberta will sue for compensation, arguing North American free-trade provisions afford the province recourse.
Melanee Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Calgary and former member of the provincial audit committee, said performance audits can disappoint government critics because they do not judge whether the best policy choice was made.
“That’s not what they do – not what they do at all,” she said. Instead, such audits gauge whether the government did what it said it would do, whether it set itself up well to execute its agenda, and how well it did that.
John Church, an expert on health policy in the University of Alberta’s political science department, said the pandemic amplified problems that preceded its arrival, such as short-comings in long-term care and the overdose crisis. People with addictions, for example, had more difficulty accessing services during lockdowns, and social isolation increased, he said.
The Auditor-General’s reviews and recommendations, Prof. Church said, will give Alberta a chance to better prepare for future catastrophes.
“The only way that those lessons are going to be learned is if some arm’s length organizations such as a provincial auditor is actually taking an objective look at what has gone on,” he said.